Unemployment insurance applications are rising rapidly according to state officials, but measures are being taken to address the influx of applicants.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the situation a “historic flood” of unemployment insurance applications. According to Arkansas Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston, the number of applications has exceeded 30,000 and does not appear to be slowing down.
“Understand that we went from processing a 1,000 claims a week to literally falling over a cliff and having to do 30,000 next week and by all indications, we’ll be at that same level this week. So trying to keep up with that volume is certainly putting a strain on our system and our people…,” he said.
President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law on March 27, providing emergency relief for individuals, business and industries around the nation. Unemployment benefits have been a focal point of the CARES Act, which expands the availability of benefits for workers.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, federal law allows states the flexibility to pay unemployment benefits when employers temporarily suspend operations due to COVID-19, when individuals are quarantined with the expectation of returning to work when the quarantine is over, and when an individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure to infection or to care for a family member.
One of the issues that the commerce department is currently facing is the number of individuals seeking pandemic unemployment compensation. Under the CARES Act, individuals who are not typically eligible for unemployment benefits are extended emergency assistance.
This provision address self-employed individuals, gig economy workers and independent contractors. However, the Arkansas Department of Commerce is currently unable to process their claims. Preston said that the department is still waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor before it is able to move forward with applications.
“What we’re seeing now is a flood on our system of those workers calling and trying to go ahead and apply for the unemployment insurance,” he said. “We are not able to process it. So I say, please hold off if you are one of those workers who fall under that category. Right now, we cannot help you until we get the guidance from the Department of Labor.”
He expects the Labor Department to issue the guidance by the end of the week. Until that time, individuals falling in the category are creating a “backload” on the department’s ability to process other claims.
According to Preston, Arkansas Department of Commerce is taking measures to increase its capacity to process claims, including reassigning employees from across the department’s division to handle phone calls dealing with unemployment insurance claims and adding additional capacity to the phone lines.
Once the department is able to process pandemic unemployment compensation claims, Preston said that there will be an announcement.